Austrians who flout vaccine mandate face fines up to $4,000

FILE - People wait in lines to register for COVID-19 vaccination on the second day of a national lockdown to combat soaring coronavirus infections, in Vienna, Austria, Nov. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File, File)

BERLIN (AP) — Austria plans to impose fines of up to 3,600 euros (around $4,000) on people who flout a coronavirus vaccine mandate it aims to introduce in February for all residents age 14 and over, the health minister said Thursday.

The government announced last month that it would implement a general vaccine mandate early next year, becoming the first European country to do so. It has drawn up details of the draft legislation in recent weeks, with backing from two of the three opposition parties in parliament.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said that there will be exemptions for pregnant women — though he stressed that vaccinations are recommended for them too — for people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, and for people who have recovered from COVID-19 in the previous six months.

The legislation is due to take effect on Feb. 1. Mueckstein said that people who are eligible for exemptions will have to have those registered in a central vaccination register, which will be checked at regular three-month intervals. The first cutoff date will be March 15.

For people who aren’t vaccinated or exempted, the draft foresees proceedings being launched that could result in a 3,600-euro fine. People’s income and other financial obligations will be taken into account in calculating fines. Alternatively, officials can opt to impose a fine of up to 600 euros (about $680) in shortened proceedings.

Authorities will write to unvaccinated people every three months reminding them to get their shots or get a doctor to certify their right to an exemption before the next cutoff date. If they continue not to comply, fines can be imposed every three months. Proceedings will be dropped if people produce proof of vaccination in the meantime.

Around 68% of Austria’s population of 8.9 million is vaccinated, a comparatively low rate for Western Europe. Neighboring Germany, where the rate is just over 69%, also is eyeing the introduction of a general vaccine mandate early next year, though plans have yet to be drawn up and officials say they will let lawmakers vote according to their conscience rather than along party lines.

FILE - A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine on the second day of a national lockdown to combat soaring coronavirus infections, in Vienna, Austria, Nov. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

The announcement from Austria that it would introduce a general vaccine mandate came on Nov. 19 — at the same time the government decided to lock down the country to curb a surge of new infections. That lockdown is due to end on Sunday, though restrictions will remain for unvaccinated people.

“We still have an obligation and a need to increase vaccination coverage so that we don’t go from lockdown to lockdown, next year as well,” said Karoline Edtstadler, the Cabinet minister responsible for constitutional issues.

“There are still well over a million Austrians who aren’t vaccinated. That is too many,” she added. “I say very clearly that we don’t want to punish the people who aren’t vaccinated. We want to bring them along, we want to convince them of this vaccination and we want them to show solidarity with everyone so that we can regain our freedom.”

The country’s seven-day infection rate has declined during the lockdown. It stood at 432.6 new cases per 100,000 residents on Thursday, down from more than 1,100 on the day the lockdown started.